It’s January, but the outdoor ice rink on Portland’s Ludlow Street has had more open water than ice so far this winter.

During a lull in the weekend rain, kids sliding on the Eastern Prom steered down a hill of wet snow, grass and mud.

Dog walkers on sidewalks exercised their pets in what seemed like March temperatures.

“So far, this winter has been very mild compared to normal,” said Sarah Thunberg, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gray. “We had frost this fall later than normal. We have not had many days in the single digits.”

A sign warns of thin ice at Deering Oaks Park in Portland. Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald

A stretch of cold air is expected starting Monday, but for the month of December, preliminary data shows the average temperature in Portland was 32.1 degrees, well above December 2020’s average of 28.2.

Snowfall is scant as well.

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In December, Portland received 12 inches of snow, Thunberg said, putting it behind 2020-21’s snowfall pace for the season. From December of 2020 through February of 2021, the city received 40.8 inches, which was 27.9 inches less than normal, Thunberg said.

A mild start to winter has its advantages, however, said some who wandered out Saturday.

Taking in the view from the Eastern Prom, Kayleigh Gibson of Saco said she doesn’t miss shoveling. Less snow means “less opportunity for activities, but it’s easier for work,” Gibson said.

Nearby, Jenna Grittani of Portland pushed her daughter, Aylin, 3, on the playground swings. She appreciated the warmer December because it allowed her to get her little one outside to play.

“I love the winter, but when the cold temperatures last for so long, it’s tricky as a parent,” she said. “You have to be real creative to have gross motor play for little ones, especially during the pandemic.” When it’s colder than 25 degrees, “it’s really hard to get out. I love a shortened winter.”

Chad Olcott of Brunswick skates with his daughter Liliana, 10, through a flooded section at The Rink at Thompson’s Point on Sunday. Warmer temperatures have made it challenging for the rink to keep the ice frozen. Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald

But, Grittani added, “in the back of my head I know it’s not a naturally occurring thing. I can tell climate change is happening.”

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The mild weather, however, has hurt traditional winter activities.

The outdoor ice rink at Thompson’s Point in Portland is open. The ice is refrigerated, “but it’s been difficult to maintain the ice,” said rink co-owner Molly Breton. Attendance has been high, she said. “It’s crazy how many people” want to skate. At times the rink has a line of 100 people waiting, Breton said. “People just want to be outside. It was the same way last year.”

The Rink at Thompson’s Point has a cover, but it doesn’t always mean skating can happen when it rains. “We try to stay open, but if there’s a slight wind, it blows onto the rink,” Breton said.

Snowmobiling is suffering with trails closed due to a lack of snow.

Like golfers in April, snowmobilers are anxious to get out there, said Bob Stickney of the Rumford Polar Bears Snowmobile Club. “We’re ready to go. We’ve got our bridges replanked, our signs are up, our equipment is ready. We just do not have enough snow.” In the foothills of the western Maine mountains, the Rumford club needs 2 feet of snow to open trails that wind through the woods. “So far we have 15 inches,” Stickney said. “Normal for this date with my 127-year average is 25.8 inches. We’re basically 11 inches under where we would normally be.”

A sign indicates that there is no ice for the skating area at Payson Park. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Even in Rangeley, often the go-to spot for snowmobilers, Matt Kennedy of the Rangeley Lake Snowmobile Club reports that trails are not yet open.

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His trails have 8 inches of snow, “not enough to run machines,” he said. “We like to have 16 inches or more to start.” For trails not to be open in early January “is pretty rare,” Kennedy said. But last year wasn’t great either. His Rangeley trails opened in December, “then it rained at Christmas and got to 50 degrees. We don’t have winter anymore.”

Kennedy has groomed trails for 30 years. Rangeley winters used to get 2 to 6 inches of snow every day, Kennedy said, and a lack of snow “really hurts.”

“Hopefully everybody does a snow dance.”

At Sugarloaf Mountain in Carrabasset Valley, there hasn’t been much natural snow. Total snowfall measured 15 inches in December, less than the 10-year average of 32 inches for the month, said Sugarloaf spokesman Ethan Austin. But Sugarloaf has had consistent cold temperatures, “which has allowed us to make snow at a pace that is consistent with most years,” he said. “We actually have more terrain open than last year.”

On Saturday ice fishing enthusiasts were hunting for spots to fish. “They were asking, ‘Where is the ice safe?'” said Mark Latti, spokesman for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Jan. 1 is the traditional opening of ice fishing, he said. “But it’s different this year. We have less ice than we normally have.” Winter is late, Latti said, but it will come. “It always does.”

Payson Hill, a popular sledding hill in Portland, is empty on Sunday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Warm starts to winter in Maine are becoming the norm, said Paul Mayewski, professor and director of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine who has led researchers investigating climate history in the Arctic and Antarctic.

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“As we all know based on temperature records of the last several decades, our region and the northern and southern hemispheres have been warming.” Maine’s warming is mostly in the winter.

“Winters are getting milder. Extreme lows, we’re not experiencing as much. There’s tremendous instability in the way the weather system operates.”

It used to be that once Maine’s winter began, “it would stay cold,” Mayewski said. That’s not happening now because the Arctic has warmed so dramatically, he said. During the summer there’s less sea ice. The net result is much more heat is being released from the ocean, largely because of greenhouse gas. “The Arctic warming has to do with the temperature difference of where we are,” he said. That’s why, he said, “we’re not seeing lakes freeze as fast. We’re not seeing the coastline with ice. The ground is not freezing anywhere near where it would have.”

That doesn’t mean Maine will not have a cold snap, Mayewski said, but cold snaps will not be as dramatic as they used to be.

While less severe winter weather translates into lower heating bills and less snow removal, it also carries some negatives, like plants or trees blooming out of season and becoming unhealthy, or “a nasty invasion of ticks,” he said.

Still, Maine is luckier than other parts of the world where climate change has meant that “lives have changed completely,” Mayewski said. “We’re not at that stage yet.”

For those Mainers hoping to go skiing or snowmobiling in January, the outlook for snow accumulation, at least for this week in Greater Portland, is not very encouraging. Hunter Tubbs, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gray, said the first chance of Portland getting any significant accumulation would be Friday. Wednesday’s forecast is calling for mostly rain along the coast with some snow falling in the Rangeley region as well as north of the foothills.

“Friday is still a ways to go and it’s hard to predict,” Tubbs said, “But it could be our best chance for seeing any accumulating snow this week.”

Tubbs predicted Monday will bring extreme cold with temperatures dipping into the low 20s. Monday’s wind chill will make it feel like it’s zero degrees, he said.

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